August 24, 2022. It was an Independence Day like none other in Ukraine. The Wednesday marked not only 31 years of the country’s liberation from the erstwhile Soviet Union but also six months of the Russian invasion. But President Volodymyr Zelensky recording his speech at a thoroughfare in Kyiv, despite fears of attacks by Russian forces, defined for many the defiant spirit of the country.
“We are the free people of an independent Ukraine,” he declared. “Six months ago, Russia declared war on us. On February 24, entire Ukraine heard explosions and gunshots. And on August 24, it wasn’t supposed to hear the words ‘Happy Independence Day’. On February 24, we were told: ‘You have no chance’. On August 24, we say: ‘Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!’”
Only three years before, Zelensky, confident that he could deliver on his election promise of bringing peace, had replaced the usual military parade with an elaborately choreographed musical production. “We all changed,” he said in his August 24 speech. “It was necessary to say ‘yes’ to independence not on the ballot but in the soul and conscience. Go not to the voting booth but to the military commissariat departments, the territorial defence units, the volunteer movement, the information troops or simply work steadily and conscientiously in your place, at full strength, for a common goal.”
As he spoke, Zelensky was surrounded by dozens of the burnt-out remains of Russia’s war machines, a strange exhibition reflecting the mixed emotions of a day. Though many felt it was dangerous for people to gather and celebrate, the mood was defiant.
Zelensky made good use of the exhibition. “The occupier believed that in a few days he would be on parade in our capital’s downtown. Today, you can see this ‘parade’ on Khreshchatyk (a thoroughfare in Kyiv). The proof that enemy equipment can appear in the centre of Kyiv only in such form. Burnt, wrecked and destroyed. It doesn’t matter to us what kind of army you have, what matters to us is our land. We will fight for it until the end,” he thundered.
This was not the first time that destroyed Russian tanks were exhibited in Kyiv. The initiative was started by Ukraine’s National Museum of Military History, located at a short distance from Ukraine’s Parliament. The exhibition started on the side street outside the museum. When they ran out of space, new additions were brought to St. Michael’s Square, right outside the iconic monastery and Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For Kyiv’s citizens, this exhibition is a must-visit site. It provides a psychological relief after a terrifying threat to their city. A plaque memorialises the site: “Ukraine’s Struggle for Independence, 2022.”
In August, I sat down with Evgeny Shupik, a senior researcher at the museum, to discuss how this unique project was conceptualised. “This war started for Ukraine in 2014,” he said. That’s why we have this exhibition about the main events of the war of the last eight years. When the full-scale invasion happened in February, we already had the experience of creating an exhibition like this.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. But I found Shupik’s statement puzzling. How could a museum be prepared for a full-scale invasion? “Our museum staff has visited the frontline on humanitarian missions,” he said. “They were looking for the bodies of fallen Ukrainian soldiers. Somebody needed to cross the frontline to work on the enemy’s side, to find the bodies of these men. We have many personal stories connected with the work on the frontline in our exhibits.”
“You know, when this war started in 2014, the Ukrainian state was not as strong as it is now,” he added. “After the Revolution of Dignity (also called Euromaidan protests), when the previous government fled to Russia, we had many problems. No one knew what to do about the problems.”
He referred to the 2014 battle of Ilovaisk, a pivotal and bitter event for Ukrainians involved in the defence effort at the time. It marked the first time that Russian soldiers crossed the border into Ukraine in large numbers. After the Ukrainian soldiers were encircled and commanders from both sides agreed on a Ukrainian withdrawal, the Russians did not honour the agreement, mercilessly firing upon the retreating Ukrainians.
When Ilovaisk happened, the Russians killed more than 300 people in a day. August 29 is the Day of Remembrance. There was a problem: Who would collect the bodies? Shupik said, “It was clear that the enemy would not allow the Ukrainian military to do such work, so they needed some civilians. Since our museum is part of the Ministry of Defence, we could be volunteers. It was not an order; it was a voluntary work. In fact, everything in our country begins with it. Then, the Ukrainian state joins this work. Some guys from our museum had experience with the Second World War archaeological exhumations. So, they went to the frontline. This mission was our first experience. We were well prepared for the full-scale invasion.”
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After Russians left Kyiv at the beginning of April, the volunteers went to pick up what remained from the enemy positions. Shupik said, “Here is the result of our work. We started working like volunteers. Everybody who had a car, fuel and free time just went looking for something.”
More than just a provocation, however, Shupik saw this new collection as a kind of popular therapy. “In Kyiv, there are 2.5 million civilians,” he said. “They lived in fear for two months under rocket shelling and bombing. Everyone was ready to receive sad news. They were nervous. It is important to show people that the Russians can be stopped and that Ukrainian forces did this very effectively.”
“The Russians said that in three days their tanks would be in the capital of Ukraine. Their dreams have come true. Tanks are now in Kyiv, but they are burned,” he added. “We collected some valuable pieces of modern Russian equipment to show that not only the Soviet but also the most modern Russian equipment were burned and destroyed by Ukrainian forces.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Taking on the Mightiest")